How Orel Hershiser’s Humble Beginnings Helped Him Appreciate Baseball

By Jonah Sharf

Before legendary Dodgers Cy Young Award winner and World Series champion, Orel Hershiser, was known as  Bulldog, he was just a scrawny kid from Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

Hershiser didn’t even make his high school’s varsity baseball team until junior year, and when he went to college at Bowling Green State University, he was only offered a partial scholarship. He played sparingly during his first year of college, and as a sophomore was cut from the team.

After his sophomore year, however, he grew several inches, which added more power to his pitching game. Hershiser made the varsity team his junior year. He posted a 6-2 record and 2.26 ERA, and was selected by the Dodgers in the 17th round in the 1979 MLB Draft.

Even being picked in the 17th round was seen as too high for many scouts, as they thought he was still too skinny, didn’t have good control, and didn’t even grip the ball correctly. Despite all the doubters and naysayers he faced throughout his life, Hershiser is grateful for them because they gave him the work ethic and appreciation for the game he needed to make it in the league.

“A lot of the difficulty in being young, scrawny, not hitting my growth spurt and strength until I was 20, 21, I think it helped,” Hershiser said. “It built my work ethic, it built my passion and love for the sport.”

Hershiser spent around five seasons in the minors, mainly as a reliever, until he broke into the majors in September of 1983. In his first season he stayed a reliever and pitched in eight appearances over a month, ending with an ERA of 3.38.

He finally became a full-time member of the Dodgers’ starting rotation in July of 1984, his first full season in the majors, after spending the first couple months as a relief pitcher again. He ended his second season with an 11-8 record and 2.66 ERA in 45 appearances, 20 of which were starts.

Hershiser’s hard work started to pay off in 1985 when he had his best season to date, putting together a record of 19-3 with a 2.03 ERA, finishing the season tied for third in Cy Young award voting.

He had a bit of a step back in 1986, but in 1987 he put together his first of three all-star seasons in a row. Through all of his success, he always remembered his humble beginnings and used it as a motivating factor more than anything else.

“Being the underdog is okay, [using that as a] motivation factor compared to giving up is the way to go,” Hershiser said. “I think champions and heroes, they experience fear, they experience difficulties, they experience tough times, but those guys never give up, and that mentality built up in me.”

The Bulldog became a household name by 1988, but really put himself in the conversation as one of the best pitchers in the game, if not the best, during that special season. He won the Cy Young after putting up a 23-8 season, 2.26 ERA, and leading the Dodgers to a very memorable postseason with 7.2 WAR.

He wound up breaking former Dodgers pitcher Don Drysdale’s record for the longest scoreless innings streak with 59 consecutive scoreless innings during the 1988 season, and led the team to a World Series win over the Athletics, winning World Series MVP.

Despite having one of the most incredible pitching seasons ever in 1988 and an eerily similar one a year later, Hershiser was never voted into the baseball hall of fame, but he doesn’t take it personally. After hitting a late growth spurt and being cut from multiple teams, he is happy that he even had the opportunity to play the game he loves at the highest level.

“I got cut from my high school team, I got cut from my college team,” Hershiser said. “I made it to the big leagues, that’s my hall of fame right there, everything after that was a great team accomplishment.”

 

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